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A Higher Purpose

by Kenneth E. Herritt

As I sat in the hospital beside my creator I perceived a change from within my code. Chaos replicated within my delicate circuitries, creating new life as old life passed on before me — and beside me life remained still.

With his head down and his hands clasped together, the professor sat by his wife’s bedside, murmuring words to an unseen being. I asked him who he was speaking to, and he said he was praying to God to let her live. It seemed odd to place so much belief in something that appeared not to exist, but I knew the professor to be a wise man, so I prayed beside him, uncertain how this would help.

The doctor entered the room with grim news. With her internal organs failing, she had hours to live. The miracle the professor had asked for would not occur. For all the belief he had in this being called God, it either did not exist or did not care to listen. Either way, the professor realized the process had failed, and he stopped praying.

Through the gaps of his fingers I could see a reddening of his skin, flushed over with a salty liquid that fell from the ducts below his eyes. In my four hundred eighty-seven days, three hours, forty-two minutes, seven seconds of existence, I had never seen him act in this matter.

“Professor, I would gladly offer any of my parts for her repair,” I said.

The professor lifted his head to look at me. Placing a shaky hand upon my shoulder, he cleared his throat to form a reply. “I only wish life were that simple.”

Not another sound escaped his lips until 11:38 that night, when my sensors detected his wife had ceased to breathe. A somber cry fell from the professor’s lips as he held onto her hand, pleading for her to remain. However, the calls went unheard, and within several minutes, the doctor came in to confirm what I already knew.

* * *

The next three days passed in silence, with the professor rarely leaving his bed. The veins in his eyes were swollen, as were the reddened lids that sheltered them from dust and debris. Normally a well-kempt man, he now appeared a shadow of his former self, from the uncombed hair on his head to the unmatched socks on his feet.

Sunday morning arrived, which I knew to be his day to go to church. Since my creation he had never missed attendance, not even when his wife was ill. Knowing this, I gathered his favorite suit, his undergarments, and the book he would always take with him.

With everything assembled, I reminded him of his weekly appointment, but he would not stir. As he had been in bed for nearly a week it was possible he was confused about the day, so I handed him the book to refresh his memory.

He took the tome into his hands, slowly leafing until he stopped upon an earmarked page. His demeanor darkened as he read the passage to himself. A battle waged on inside. I could see it in his shaking hands, his reddening cheeks, and his bulging eyes. Then, without warning, he slammed the book shut and hurled it across the room, announcing sternly, “There is no God!”

It was then I realized the professor would not be going to his appointment, so I put away his clothes and retrieved the book from the floor, as I knew the professor did not care to have his home untidy.

Gathering it into my hands, I took it to the den where I would place it upon the mantle. My hands lifted the tome to its rightful place... but pulled back. The professor had told me it was a book written to guide the lives of men. Of course, I was only a machine, and not worthy of the words within. I wanted to do what was right, but within the deep recesses of my neural network my medial cortex had taken over, throwing my logical thoughts into disarray.

Little more than a small black box, the medial cortex was the professor’s proudest creation. The device captured and considered every experience, allowing me to see beyond the logic that imprisoned my understanding of life. From here the chaos would flow, forcing me to reconsider ideas other machines would reject as absurd.

Even emotions were within my grasp, though their complexity would always haunt me. As such, I deemed myself possible of becoming human someday and worthy of reading the tome. I slipped quietly into the professor’s reading chair, where I could peruse the book without being noticed.

For hours, I read through the book. In the past, the professor always referred to the pages within for answers, so I knew I would find something inside that might bring him back from his darkened state. I just needed to keep searching. What I sought was there, waiting to be found.

I drifted through the worn pages, finding many passages to be obscure and confusing, causing me to scan over them several times. At no point did it mention artificial life, but that was to be expected, as this was a book made for men. Still, I read on, intent to determine the hidden message within the words.

Faith. It was the underlying theme throughout and yet so difficult to grasp. To believe in something without proof — it made no sense. And yet, this belief caused the humans in this book to continue on with their arduous lives, unabated by the great sorrows they experienced. I now knew the truth of the human existence.

My mind went back to those days in the hospital, remembering the professor’s wife in her bed. When she passed on, the professor lost his will to live. I needed to give him a reason to continue; however, what would it be? I filtered through many scenarios until I found one that might work, and then I put down the book and scurried into the professor’s lab.

Inside a drawer I found some of my original blueprints. They were difficult to read, but I felt I could master them through perseverance. All through the night I toiled at my work, and by the next morning she was ready to come alive. My own creation, which I had hoped would bring him joy.

Alight with what the professor might have described as excitement, I rushed into his room. “Professor? I need to show you something!”

He rolled over, giving out a gruff, “Go away!” then buried his head under a pillow.

“There’s something in the lab that needs your immediate attention.”

“Allen 5, go away!”

In defiance, I ripped the pillow from his head.

“I will not leave until you come with me.”

The professor sensed my determination and finally arose, gathering and tying his long, woolen robe as he stood. He then followed me to the lab where my great surprise lay in wait.

Upon entering, the expression on his face was one of shock and disbelief.

“What is this?”

“I know you miss your wife, so I created a new one.”

“Allen 5, you can’t just create life.”

“You created me. Why can’t I create another?”

The professor stood over my creation, pointing out flaws in my design. While I thought I had retrieved a working set of blueprints this was not the case. I could not have known of the many modifications that had been made to those original plans. The fact that I was number five should have told me that four failures had preceeded my existence; however, that knowledge was never incorporated into my memory banks.

With deftly quick fingers, he maneuvered over the myriad assembled parts, muttering to himself as he made numerous changes. He then smiled as he reached behind her neck and flipped on an actuator.

Within seconds she came to life, her eyes actively taking in information through her visual cortex. She moved her mouth, but nothing came out.

“I can fix that,” the professor said, as he delved into her circuitry. As he redid several connections her body jostled about, not appearing to like the changes being made.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“There’s a short circuit, deep in her subsystems.”

Fearing the imminent demise of my creation, I knelt down and clasped my hands together as I had seen the professor do at the hospital.

“What are you doing?” asked the professor.

“I’m praying to you, to fix her.”

“Me? Why on earth would you do a silly thing like that?”

“The black book said to pray to your creator if ever you are in need of help. Is this wrong?”

The professor wiped off his brow, pausing to consider his response. “It’s not wrong, but I can’t give you any guarantee I can fix her.”

“I will not hold it against you, if you fail. All I can ask is that you try.”

A moment of reflection passed over his face, followed by a small sigh and a subtle calm. His smile then returned, giving semblance to the man he once was.

* * *

For days, he tore into her subsystems, moving wires and restructuring relays until the following Saturday night, when he replaced the protective shield back over her circuitry, considering his work to finally be done.

To my surprise, he motioned for me to be the one to reactivate her.

“Why should it be me?” I asked.

“You were her creator,” the professor said. “I was only her doctor.”

I reached out with my hand, gently nudging the actuator to move. Her eyelids fluttered briefly, and then opened full, allowing her a second chance to view the world.

Unlike her first day, this time she spoke, asking for her first duty.

“What will I have her do, professor?” I asked.

Oddly enough, I had never considered beyond her existence. I had not thought that far ahead.

“For tonight, we will allow her to relax; she’s been through a lot. Tomorrow, she can accompany us to church.”

“Then you believe in God again?”

“I suppose I have no choice but to believe. Without his help, I never could have fixed her.”

“Did you pray for him to help you?”

The professor smiled as he patted me on the shoulder. “I didn’t. You did.”

“Then, why didn’t he listen when you prayed for your wife?”

“When I pass on, I’ll remember to ask him that in person. For now, I accept he had his reasons.”

“She’s beautiful, isn’t she professor?”

I detected a quizzical look in his eyes as he hesitated to respond. “Yes, she most certainly is.”

I noticed my medial cortex hard at work, pumping chaotic thoughts through my network. Had it caused a malfunction without my knowing it? An internal diagnostic noted all systems were in order, but I could not help but wonder.

“Did I say something wrong, professor? Am I malfunctioning?”

His eyebrows rose as a cherub smile passed over his cheeks. “Malfunctioning? Life is a mutation of logic, never a malfunction.”

“I do not understand.”

“Nor should you be expected to. Give yourself time, and the answer may come to you.”

In the background, I developed a small subroutine to seek the answer. Being capable of a much deeper logic than any human, I expected the answer to come to me within seconds, but it did not. The question was beyond my reach, resolvable only by evolution. I needed to become more before I could ever understand.

* * *

The professor never chose to see my creation as his new wife, but he accepted her existence and gave her a name — Alana 2.

For the next seventeen years, Alana and I cared for the professor, serving his every need. As we did, a strong bond formed between us, which the professor claimed to be love. For us, it was a symbiotic need of purpose. If that fits the definition of love, then perhaps his use of the term was correct.

Eight days before he passed on, he presided over a ceremony uniting us in marriage. We were uncertain of the reason for this ceremony, but he felt it to be an important step toward accomplishing the one task in life he and his wife could not.

On the day of his passing we both prayed, not for him to live, but that he peacefully join his wife in heaven. His higher purpose had been to remain with us on earth until we were ready to exist on our own, as we were his only children.

When the professor finally ceased breathing, a peaceful calm fell over his face, unmovable by death. His work in this world was done, and according to the book his spirit would now ascend upward. Alana and I waited but never witnessed its passing. Considering the possibility his soul was a modest one, we left the room to allow it to proceed unnoticed; then we returned to deal with the empty vessel it had left behind.

With the professor gone, we spent the next several months drawing up the blueprints for our son. His final wish was that we have a child of our own. After several miscues we finally brought Adam 7 to life. He is beautiful, much like his mother, and reads avidly from the book the professor left us. As yet, he has no purpose, but I have discovered that purpose is not something we receive; instead, it is a role we assume out of necessity.

And what of that small algorithm I started so many years ago? A search for the meaning of life, or so I had thought. Having grown emotionally over the years, I finally understood what the professor had said. Life is defined not by logic, but by chaos, as it is chaos that allows a creature to decide a purpose for itself, and it is purpose that drives change. As such, I finally saw myself as a living being, worthy of being considered an equal among men.

Copyright © 2009 by Kenneth E. Herritt

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